Generally, one expects a sextet, quintet, quartet, or trio to go on its own power and to show us that the guiding spirit in a handful of united musicians often surpasses the tilling hand of a conductor. Well, the recent season premi`ere of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, which consists of the principal players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), quickly became a lesson in the opposite direction.
The program opener, Copland's Sextet for Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet -- a work reduced from its original form as the ``Short Symphony'' (1933) because most orchestras wouldn't play it -- gave little trouble to these technically superb musicians. The tough, linear course of the work, its rhythmic intricacies and harmonic complexity, show Copland at his most serious and resourceful. The two rigorous outer movements give neither musician nor audience a moment's rest, while the meditative, keening L ento between them manages somehow to retain the uncompromising angularity of the Allegro Vivace it follows.
All three movements were played with good marksmanship and skill by the BSO's top honchos (resident pianist Gilbert Kalish brought a motivating energy to the enterprise); but it was the inner energy of the work itself that made all the points that were made. Emotionally, this was a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained undertaking.
The following piece, Mahler's ``Songs of a Wayfarer,'' arranged for chamber ensemble, benefited greatly from the shaping and directing hand of conductor David Hoose, as well as the luminous presence of baritone Sanford Sylvan -- both local musicians who appeared only for this piece. Sylvan's spiritual rapport with these songs was striking from the start. He negotiated Mahler's almost Byzantine musical phraseology and the counterpoised romantic melodic fervor with a special grace. And that grace wa s evident in the whole musical discourse as Hoose read it.
Walter Piston's adroit, lyrical Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet, and Bassoon (1925) went by fleetingly and well, before we arrived at the real, tough knot of the afternoon: Brahms's great Trio in C for Piano, Violin, and Cello.
This work sets forth no great playing obstacle to musicians of this caliber; it was played with enormous skill . . . but without the least smidgin of soul. Aside from the Scherzo, which crackled along nicely, and the Trio, which sang well, this was a strangely lifeless reading. The finale was frankly insipid and dull.
What's to be gathered from all this?
That these great orchestra musicians are better at producing organized sound, to be shaped by a wise conductor's hand, than spontaneous, spirited music? Not quite. But what we heard at this performance (except for the extraordinary, rapturous Mahler ``Songs'') was a group of orchestra players giving a standard symphony hall reading to some demanding chamber pieces. -- 30 --